Welcome to Waterdeep! An Introduction to the City of Splendors
The next Dungeons & Dragons adventure, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist will take place in—where else?—Waterdeep, the City of Splendors and Jewel of the Sword Coast! This city is figuratively built atop thousands of years of history, and literally built atop the thousands-years-old mega-dungeon Undermountain. Players and DMs who are preparing to adventure in Waterdeep when Dragon Heist launches on September 6th, 2018, will want to know a little bit about the city before they create their characters—especially if those characters are native Waterdhavians.
First lesson: a person who lives in Waterdeep is called a Waterdhavian.
Who’s in Charge of this Place?
After someone gets a concussion, one of the first questions you ask them (in America, anyway) is “Who’s the President?” If they don’t know who that is, they’re in trouble. Everyone knows who’s in charge of the country, no matter how much or how little they care about politics. For the people of Waterdeep, everyone knows who the Open Lord is. The Open Lord rules not just the city of Waterdeep, but the entire Lords’ Alliance, a political entente between the nobles of the Sword Coast and their supporters, and one of the five main factions vying for cultural control of Faerûn.
The Open Lord is a woman named Laeral Silverhand, a major lore character in the Forgotten Realms. She is one of the famed Seven Sisters and a Chosen of Mystra, goddess of magic. She rose to power in the middle (!) of the Rise of Tiamat adventure, ousting the former Open Lord, Dagult Neverember. The exact details of his fall from power are shrouded in mystery, but Lady Silverhand is a wise, confident, and respected ruler—whereas Lord Neverember (now ruler of the rebuilt city of Neverwinter) is best known as a selfish lout of a man. Her tactical and political savvy was vital in corralling the squabbling Council of Waterdeep and helping defeat Tiamat and the Cult of the Dragon.
Silverhand is known as the Open Lord because Waterdeep is also ruled by a council of Masked Lords. These enigmatic councilors are selected from the gentry of Waterdeep, but keep their identities a secret, even among themselves. One of the few known Masked Lords of Waterdeep is Ominifus Hereward Dran, better known as Omin Dran, the CEO of Acquisitions Incorporated.
Everyday Life in the City of Splendors
Waterdeep is perhaps the most advanced city on the Sword Coast. In the video above, Mike Mearls described the City of Splendors as “the center of culture, the arts, learning. […] In D&D [adventurers are often] off in the periphery of the realm. You have very utilitarian and primitive technology. But as you come closer and closer to the core, to a city like Waterdeep, you get more and more civilized, more and more advanced everyday items. There’s an idea that in Waterdeep you can catch a taxi and things like that. It almost feels like if the fringes of the civilized realms of the Sword Coast are the dark ages, a rough-and-tumble, barbaric frontier, Waterdeep is almost like 1800s London.” Chris Perkins likewise noted that Waterdeep “is a city on the cutting edge. It’s kind of between a medieval city and a Victorian [era] city. There’s magic galore.”
Needless to say, the standards of living for most in Waterdeep are better than those in, for instance, the Dessarin Valley seen in Princes of the Apocalypse. Of the lands we’ve seen so far in the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, only the capital of Chult, Port Nyanzaru, can compare in magnificence. However, as in all places of great wealth, there are those who possess it, and those who lack it. The city’s upper class—comprised of merchants, minor nobility, and successful adventurers—live in comfort in the North Ward and the Castle Ward, enjoying the luxuries of fine food, comfortable beds, and the protection of an attentive City Watch. Those few who are even wealthier than they live in the lap of luxury within the Sea Ward, an opulent community on the high northern cliffs of Waterdeep, overlooking the shining waters of the Sea of Swords.
Characters with a guild artisan or noble background (or the more specific Waterdhavian noble background from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide) may come from households in these wealthy neighborhoods, and characters with the gladiator background may have rubbed elbows with wealth, thanks to visits to the Fields of Triumph, the grand coliseum within the Sea Ward. Acolytes, charlatans, courtiers, entertainers, knights, and sages may also find themselves in these neighborhoods, though few are lucky enough to call them their home.
Far beneath those cliffs, however, live the wretched of Waterdeep. Pressed between the cliffs and the ocean is the squalid Dock Ward and the barely incorporated Deepwater Harbor district. Here, scoundrels, pirates, and thieves butt heads with the poor and homeless of the city. Criminal forces such as the Zhentarim and the infamous Xanathar Guild take advantage of these downtrodden folk. Just above the Dock Ward is the home of Waterdeep’s middle class: the Trades Ward and South Ward, the center of commerce and “suburban” life in the City of Splendors.
Characters with the criminal, sailor, soldier, urban bounty hunter, or urchin background probably know one of these districts well. And characters of wealthier backgrounds may find themselves living in these squalid conditions if their fortunes have taken a sudden turn for the worse. D&D is filled with rags-to-riches stories, but inverting that into a riches-to-rags background can be the start of a compelling and sympathetic character arc.
Dangers of the Big City
Waterdeep may be the Jewel of the Sword Coast, but that doesn’t mean adventurers there will just be drinking and partying at the Yawning Portal all day long. There are laws against starting fights (or, Lathander forbid, committing murder) in the streets. But Dragon Heist is, well, a heist! I can’t share spoilers about what’s within this book, but one can imagine the sort of adventures characters might get into in a heist. Think of Oceans 11 (or the upcoming Oceans 8), Leverage, or the scenarios of the fantasy heist RPG system Dusk City Outlaws. Characters seeking trouble and adventure in Waterdeep need only create a disguise, assume a false name, and sneak into a Masked Lord’s masked ball.
Or, adventurers can delve into the infamous sewers of Waterdeep and go seeking out darker and deadlier dangers. Deep beneath the city are two realms of fear and peril. Descending through the dungeon entrance in the middle of the Yawning Portal’s taproom will find themselves in the largest dungeon in all of Faerûn: Undermountain. Filled with monsters, restless spirits, and extraplanar oddities, Undermountain is a realm few enter, and even fewer leave. Undermountain has existed for centuries, after being created as the lair for Halaster Blackcloak, one of the most powerful spellcasters of all time. Halaster was defeated long ago, and Undermountain fell into ruin and passed into legend.
The city of Waterdeep was built atop the ruins of Undermountain, and the Yawning Portal was constructed over its only remaining entrance. The Portal’s innkeeper, Durnan, is a former adventurer of great power and renown, and has for many long years kept vigil over this sinister place. He has no qualms about allowing fools to venture into its lightless depths, but he has no mercy to the monsters that emerge from the dungeon and into his tavern.
Within Undermountain, on its third lightless level, is the secret city of Skullport. As a wise old wizard once said, you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Filled with the worst elements of humanity and stalked by drow, illithids, and all sort of sinister characters, Skullport is a place where only liars survive. It is said that the murderous agents of the Xanathar Guild lurk within Skullport, but no one truly knows the nature of this enigmatic guild of thieves. Anyone wishing to seek out Waterdeep’s greatest criminals would do well to brave the darkness beneath the city.
Further Reading About Waterdeep
More pages have been written about the City of Splendors, Undermountain, and lightless realm of Skullport than any one article can summarize. Though much has changed in the Forgotten Realms over the past hundred years, there are books from older editions of Dungeons & Dungeons that describe these places of adventure in great detail. Until Waterdeep: Dragon Heist releases in September, you can learn a thing or two about this magnificent city in official PDFs on the Dungeon Master’s Guild.
The best resource for Waterdeep is the classic AD&D second edition book Volo’s Guide to Waterdeep. Undermountain, however, is too big for a single adventure or dungeon to explain. There are dozens of adventures detailing the endless halls of this most massive of dungeons. Finally, the grimy streets of Skullport are thoroughly detailed in Skullport, a supplement for AD&D second edition. Be warned, though, Skullport has suffered immense changes in the past century. The Spellplague and the Second Sundering ravaged the Port of Skulls, leaving it all but devoid of civilized life.
Until the release of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, there’s no way to know what’s “canon” or not in this grand city, save for what little information is explained in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. In the meantime, let your imagination run wild! Create a Waterdeep all your own, or invent a thriving fantasy metropolis for your own campaign setting.
What do you want to know about Waterdeep? What questions about this grand city do you hope to see answered in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist?
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of the Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and is also a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his beloved cat burglers, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.